Washington, DC — Seeking to rehabilitate its tattered reputation, the U.S. Interior Department today proposed rules to improve the accuracy and integrity of its scientific work. Disturbingly, the proposal ignores political manipulation of science and instead focuses on punitive measures against scientific specialists, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
A report issued this year by its Office of Inspector General (IG) faulted Interior for lacking any policy to ensure the integrity of its scientific work. The proposed rules published today in the Federal Register would subject Interior scientists to discipline for actions such as falsification of data, disclosure of proprietary data and avoidance of conflicts of interest. Significantly, the rules do not apply to agency managers or bar alteration of scientific reports by non-scientists for political reasons.
“The scientists within Interior are not the ones rewriting documents inappropriately. Scientific misconduct stems from Interior’s political appointees and hand-picked senior managers but these folks are not covered by the policy,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to a recent Government Accountability Office report that found Interior managers short-circuiting environmental reviews of offshore drilling in its Alaska office. “Interior’s approach to scientific integrity in essence penalizes the victims and gives a free ride to the perpetrators.”
In the Gulf of Mexico, Interior managers waived environmental and safety reviews on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig and signed off on a shoddy spill response plan that listed walruses and seals as local wildlife, among other absurdities. This spring, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and top aides overlooked scientific warnings about the risk of oil spills and the lack of response capacity before approving a major expansion of offshore drilling, just days before the disastrous BP explosion and spill.
“Interior’s performance in the Gulf raised a host of troubling questions – all of which this proposal avoids,” added Ruch, noting that agency scientists are already subject to discipline and negative performance reviews for scientific deviations and errors. “Reform at Interior needs to start at the top.”
The draft Interior policy also appears at odds with a directive issued by President Obama in March 2009 that agencies work with the White House to develop policies providing transparency and peer review to technical work, protecting scientific data from being “compromised” and extending whistleblower protection to scientists. The Interior draft rules contain none of these key elements.
The proposed rules are subject to a 20-day public comment period.